On Sunday, the greatest basketball player of all time, William Felton Russell, died at the age of 88.
In his impressive career, he won two NCAA championships (at the University of San Francisco), an Olympic gold medal and 11 NBA championships (with the Boston Celtics), and became the first Black man to coach a team in a major sports league.
More than that, Bill Russell was a warrior for others. He used his abilities and fame to advocate for equal rights and to combat the lingering disease of racism. No doubt, some of what spurred him to greatness was the treatment he received at the hands of fans and others, but he never became bitter.
He had a reputation for being tough on the court and prickly off the court. But he was kind and generous, especially to young fans, even young Knicks fans who ran across him in a hallway of the Holiday Inn in Hollywood in the summer of 1974.
Upon his death, the pro forma statements were offered by the usual suspects. NBA players, league officials and reporters were all quick to note (correctly) that Mr. Russell was a leader in the 1960s in the effort to realize the full promise of the United States.
Not surprisingly, none of those sentiments compared Mr. Russell’s life’s work to the embarrassment that is the NBA’s relationship with communist China.
If Mr. Russell were at the start of his career now, one hopes that he would recognize and speak out against the wrongness of being on the payroll of a regime that profits from slavery, a regime that is recognized as genocidal by pretty much everyone, a regime that as recently as this week has made incendiary threats directed at American officials and the United States.
The NBA, which Mr. Russell put in so much to build (the league was just six years old when he was drafted by the Celtics), is now completely comfortable with working with a genocidal, enslaving regime, even to the point where the league will throw its own people overboard if they offend the communists.
For example, in October 2019, when communist China was bringing the formerly free city of Hong Kong to heel, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Mr. Morey quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage was done. Rather than stand for democracy, rule of law, rights, the citizens of Hong Kong and their own people, both the Rockets and the NBA caved and apologized to the communists.
The current on-court heir apparent to Mr. Russell, LeBron James, embarrassed himself and joined in, describing the situation in China as “challenging,” and asking why Mr. Morley wasn’t being punished by the league. It is perhaps not an accident that Mr. James picks up the occasional bag of cash from Nike (around $32 million a year), a company with its own questionable relationship with slavery in China.
Similarly, when Enes Kanter Freedom, an 11-year NBA veteran, decided he wanted to make statements on and off the court about what the NBA celebrates — communist China and its products, like Nike — and what it does not — his brand of thought leadership — the league made a concerted effort to silence him.
As recently as last month, audio recordings appeared that made it clear that owners and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver understand and accept that the price of access to China’s marketplace is silence in the face of slavery and genocide.
Given all of this, it is easy to conclude that the cash involved must be impressive. It is. As Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru at ESPN noted in a story in May: “The owners had reason to stay quiet: In addition to the money their teams derive from the NBA’s $5 billion business in China, many have significant personal stakes there through their other businesses. ESPN examined the investments of 40 principal owners and found that they collectively have more than $10 billion tied up in China.”
Despite the accolades league officials and players lavished on Mr. Russell on the occasion of his death, the reality is that they do not honor his memory nor his life’s work to help people — all people. For him, people mattered.
For the current NBA, its owners, and unfortunately many of its players, the only thing that matters is the cash.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.